Hi, and welcome to the forum!
You are not the first or last person to make the "pet store puppy" mistake, and it certainly sounds like you learned your lesson in the hardest way possible. I don't think most breeders would hold your decision against you. You are obviously a responsible pet owner and parent.
I chose this breed for a similar reason to you... I have ridden, trained and shown horses for 35 years. But I have RA, and it got to the point that I just couldn't ride or even care for my horses at home any more. (I still have my younger one, but he is leased out to a boy who shows him, and lives at a friend's show barn rather than at home) The loss of an animal to train with left a profound hole in my life. I am allergic to most dogs, so that limited the breed possibilities, and like you, I wanted a dog small enough that it wouldn't put further stress on my joints.
I couldn't be happier with my choice of this breed, my breeder, and this particular dog. But I was a bit obsessive about finding the right one, from beginning to end. I wanted a dog who would go on long walks with me, be part of all family activities, get along with other dogs well at extended family get-togethers and have the drive to do performance sports. Also, because this was my first dog, it needed to be of a easy to get along with, "biddable" breed. There are terriers that are supposedly low allergy dogs, but they are higher energy and a little "sharper" temperamentally than I felt comfortable with in my first dog.
Once I had narrowed my search down to this breed (actually, I had narrowed it down to a Hav or a Coton, but it was even harder to find a Coton puppy that coincided with my preferred timing, and they are even more expensive... plus I like all the colors Havs come in!
) I started contacting breeders. I didn't care if I had to travel. The right puppy was the absolutely most important factor, and I figured that over the life of a dog, the added travel cost was a drop in the bucket!
Some breeders never got back to me, others did, but wouldn't have puppies in the time frame I was interested in, MANY I crossed off the list for other reasons. I also worked closely with a friend who is a trainer, who checked out my "short list" breeders to make sure I wasn't missing anything. None of the good people had ANY problem with this second phone call from her. (I asked them ahead of time) In fact, they seemed impressed that I was being so careful and thoughtful about my decision.
In the end, I found my breeder right here in the forum! Many people who are looking for a puppy run the breeder's name by us here on the forum. Often, someone knows the breeder and their dogs and can give you some feed-back. If not, we can still look at their website and suggest possible red flags, and extra questions that you will want answered. It sounds like you already know about the health testing that is absolutely necessary from a good breeder. I would also not buy a puppy without soaped pictures of the parents and the pup to see that they have straight legs. One of the tricky things with coated dogs is that lovely hair can hide a lot of sins!
In the end, though, I STRONGLY suggest visiting the breeder, meeting the pup's parents and SEEING how the pups are being raised. Because Kodi was such a long way from me, (I'm in MA and the Kings are in NC) I could only visit when I picked him up. But I went down there having PROMISED my trainer friend (who came with me) that if we didn't like what we saw, or if the puppy or parents weren't what we were looking for in terms of temperament, I would walk away. It would have been VERY hard, but I would have done it. Luckily, I didn't have to! The King's dogs are uniformly lovely, sweet and well mannered, and you couldn't ask for a better puppy raising environment.
Not only that, but the Kings have been a wonderful resource to me the entire time I've had Kodi, and I feel like we have become real friends. That's the kind of relationship you want with your breeder. (and there are many other good breeders represented on this forum too, I'm just telling you about my experience with MY breeder!)
As far as the food thing is concerned, I wouldn't get too worried about what the breeder is feeding as long as it is within reason. There are LOTS of opinions about what is "necessary" for the perfect dog food. The truth is that different dogs react differently to different foods. Over and over on this forum, you see that one person feeds nothing but XXX (excellent) brand dog food, and that same food is a real problem for someone else's dog. If a breeder has found that a particular food agrees with her dogs, and the puppies are growing well, with good coats and lots of energy, I wouldn't worry about it. You can change them to whatever you want once you get them home! I may be wrong, but I don't THINK that many (if any) breeders start puppies off on raw food.
Oh, and Kodi goes camping with us all the time! well, trailer camping... even before I got RA, I didn't like sleeping on the ground!
You will have to consider your pup's coat if you want him to do a lot of outdoor stuff with you. By far, those with the silkier, less profuse coats are easier to maintain, especially if you keep their coat long. Even in a puppy cut, unless you keep them VERY short, you'll be doing a lot of grooming if you get one with a heavy "fluffy" type coat. There are no guarantees when you get a puppy, but look at the adult dogs related to your prospective puppy, and ask the breeder about this. If a lot of the adult non-showing dogs are in long coat, it's likely that they have pretty easy to care for coats! I didn't even know there were different coat types, and I got very lucky. Kodi has a beautiful, silky coat that is quite easy to maintain now that he is an adult (almost ALL Havs go through the dreaded "blowing coat" when they lose their puppy coat, creating mats for a period of time!) Kodi is mostly white, so he does get dirty when he runs through mud in the woods, but even with his long coat he cleans up pretty quickly!
Here are some pix of Kodi on family trips!